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Many may not be aware of the historical debate that has gone on about the extermination of Armenian citizens that lived during the Ottoman Empire (Modern-day Turkey) at the time of the first World War. Historians have the documentation and evidence to prove that the systematic slavery and genocide occurred but without the admission of the Turkish authorities. The government of the Republic of Turkey has tried to keep this atrocity from getting out to the world’s population, but the work of the production team behind The Promise has been able to get the film to theaters. The production team stated that they were not as concerned with the financial results as much as getting the message out.
Based loosely on actual events and individuals, the screenplay focuses on three individuals who were affected in different ways by these horrible events. Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is a driven medical student who has left his village to pursue his dream of studying medicine, but he must leave behind Maral (Angela Sarafyan), his betrothed who has helped to fund his education. He is able to live and thrive in Constantinople at the Imperial Medical Academy, due to the generosity of his wealthy uncle. While living in the home of his extended family, Mikael has the privilege of meeting his cousin’s tutor, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). Even though she is the companion to the Associate Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale) and he is committed to marrying someone else, Mikael falls in love with Ana. Their lies quickly change with the oncoming events that occur during the beginning of the war which leads to the targeted persecution of the Armenian people. They all have to determine if they will flee or attempt to save the lives of this people group within the borders of Turkey.
The effort to get this story to cinemas should receive an award for patience and persistence. Throughout the years, different directors, writers and actors have been considered for this historical drama, but through it all they were able to get the funding and A-listers Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale to commit. Director Terry George who is no stranger to the genre with Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father to his credit. On paper this looks like a winning combination.
Unlike the Jewish Holocaust that has become a mainstay in the Hollywood productions, the challenges for George is getting audiences up to speed on this atrocity that occurred in the early 1900s. Also, it centers on an area of the world that is not a regular part of western cinemas. George is able to grab the hearts of viewers by showing the emotion that is conveyed in reaction to these government-sanctioned acts, but the cultural reasoning is not as clear. The tension between the Turks and the Armenians was not portrayed to make these acts understandable because the story’s focus occurs within the Armenian community. This does not justify the acts of the Ottoman Empire, but the lack of backstory leaves more confusion than education to the events.
Some of the difficulties may come from the love triangle that plays out upon the backdrop of the historical events. Isaac, Bale and Le Bon carry the story along effectively and the passion is convincing between the three, but it detracts more than complements the historical element of the storyline. It is critical for the progression of the film but adds to the discombobulating effect of the script.
In the end it is not clear what the true promise was that motivated the title. The inevitable conclusion does highlight the importance of the educating people of the lost lives of a people group, but why the love story was included was uncertain. This was a lesson in the need to adopt a ‘less is more’ methodology. It is an important part of history that needs to be brought to people’s attention, but the experience of this historical drama will leave many more confused than moved.